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Julius Randle may have rediscovered himself against the Bulls

Despite coming up short, Julius Randle had a performance against the Bulls that might get him back on track

New York Knicks v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Following last week’s disappointing home loss to the Orlando Magic, I wrote a piece titled “Julius Randle is the Knicks’ biggest problem right now.” In the piece, I explained that while, yes, the Knicks had many issues that needed correcting, none of them would truly matter unless the franchise player began playing like one.

The reason I bring that up is because even though the Knicks suffered a 109-103 loss to the Chicago Bulls Sunday night, Randle had one of his best games of the season with 34 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists. That gaudy statline doesn’t change the outcome of the close game, but it could be the start of a new trend that sends the Knicks in the right direction.

Absent from this game were both Mitchell Robinson and Taj Gibson. And with Nerlens Noel picking up three fouls in the first quarter, Randle saw a lot of minutes in smaller lineups, which created opportunities for plays like this.

Randle doesn’t do a lot of work as the roll man. Only about 9 percent of his plays can be categorized as such both this season and last. Part of that is a product of circumstance. If he’s not sharing the floor with one of New York’s traditional big men who often screen and roll to the basket, Obi Toppin is the one who typically dives to the rim on account of his athleticism. Randle prefers to pop and have the option to either shoot or create off the dribble.

But at a time when maybe it feels like Randle is trying to do too much to lead the way, Tom Thibodeau might want to consider smaller lineups on a more frequent basis. He’s playing center more often than last season, but even more playing time in the middle coupled with a tweak in screen-setting habits could get Randle the easy buckets he needs to find a rhythm.

“He had to play the center position,” Thibodeau said of Randle after the game. “We were shorthanded. We asked him to do a lot and he tried to provide what we needed.”

One of Randle’s biggest issues heading into this game wasn’t just that his shot wasn’t falling. It was the type of shots he was taking. He’s been driving the ball and getting to the free-throw line fewer times compared to last season and had been shooting more from beyond the arc.

That changed against Chicago, where only two of Randle’s 19 field goal attempts were threes, tied for a season-low mark. He got to the line eight times, his second consecutive game with that many attempts after registering nine attempts during the previous four games combined. He was also 8-of-10 within the restricted area.

It helped that the Bulls only had one center available and that Randle was primarily guarded by Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. Both are superb perimeter defenders, but they also give up a considerable amount of size to Randle.

“I was just trying to get what they gave me, create, get to my spots,” Randle said after the game. “They were small. With how they were playing me, I was trying to take advantage of it, midrange. I don’t go into a game saying I’m taking 8 threes.”

Randle might not have that kind of favorable matchup as often as he did, but there was a mentality component to his big night that can and should carry over moving forward.

Few players around the NBA can match Randle’s combination of height (6’8”), strength (250 pounds), and agility. That makes him a walking mismatch, the kind that can either bully his way past smaller defenders or blow past slower ones. To ignore those advantages in favor of launching jumpers against any defense is a disservice to both himself and the Knicks because no single player can truly stop a player like Randle from getting where he wants to go when he’s determined enough to get there.

And when Randle is getting efficient looks around the rim, that draws other defenders towards him and opens up teammates he’s more than capable of finding along the perimeter.

It’s easy to overreact to Randle’s first game with more than 20 points since he scored 31 in a win over the Sixers on Nov. 8. And in one sense, you should. After all, to dig yourself out of a slump, you have to start somewhere. Randle did exactly that in ways that feel more sustainable compared to the random ups and downs that can occur when you rely on the jumper too much.

The challenge now lies in seeing if he can continue playing to these habits. For that, we’ll have to wait and see beginning Tuesday when the Lakers come to MSG.